HENNIKER — At a time when many small universities in the Northeast are struggling to balance their books, New England College is looking toward the future with a new student e-sports league, complete with a nationally known coach and a designated arena for the players.
Short for electronic sports, e-sports are organized multiplayer video games played at the high school, collegiate and professional level.
Tyrelle Appleton, 25, will lead the college’s new e-sports venture. Appleton earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management and an MBA while playing basketball at the College of St. Joseph. He also competed professionally in national e-sports competitions while building connections in the gaming industry.
“My parents never really understood why I was playing video games so much.” Appleton said. “They couldn’t really grasp the idea of e-sports, they just understood that I was playing a lot of Xbox. But now, when we have the conversation about me being an e-sports coach, they say ‘All this time you were playing Xbox, this is actually a big thing now.’”
NEC joins 100 other colleges and universities who have formed their own competitive e-sports leagues under the banner of the National Association of Collegiate E-sports, the governing body for collegiate level e-sports.
Any NEC student is open to try out for the league, which will focus heavily on games like “Fortnite,” “Overwatch” and “Super Smash Brothers,” but Appleton is also recruiting players for his team, using a video game streaming service called Discord to scout players at the high school level.
In addition to his recruiting efforts, Appleton spends his days leaning on his industry connections and marketing know-how to build a network of sponsorships for his team.
“A lot of my top connections came from my time gaming,” Appleton said. “The other day I was able to talk to the CEO of Logitech, who referred me to someone else that I used to form a partnership with XSplit.”
XSplit is the flagship product of Philippines-based tech start-up SplitmediaLabs Limited. The product specializes in producing live-streamed and recorded content of game play for YouTube and Facebook, among others.
John Marshall, chief media officer for SplitmediaLabs, did not disclose the details of the sponsorship arrangement, but did say the NEC team will feature the company’s logo on its jerseys and other promotional products.
As a former college basketball player, Appleton says he plans to combat the image of the sluggish video gamer by emphasizing health and physical fitness in the real world.
“My players are not going to be the stereotypical lazy gamers on the couch,” Appleton said. “I’m going to implement a program where they can be active during the week; get an hour or two in at the gym, come to practice and make sure their skills are sharp and that they’re mentally in tune with what’s going on.”
But Appleton was reluctant to get too detailed about all of the plans for his team.
“That’s my secret sauce — I can’t give that out,” he said.
Despite the rocky financial realities that have many small colleges in the region making cuts, Thomas Horgan, NEC’s senior advisor to the president and interim director of public information, says the college’s economic strength and pioneering culture have motivated the college to respond to the changing higher education market with new programs like e-sports.
“At a time when the demographics in New England are declining and most schools are struggling, we have record enrollments and we’re growing,” Horgan said. “We’ve just completed a $37 million capital campaign that just went over $38 million. Part of the future of the institution is being cutting-edge, innovative and aggressive. That’s our culture and we’re going to be one of the first to market an e-sports (program).”